When an episode like “Battle of the Bastards” comes along, sometimes the easy thing to do is to throw up your hands, let the spectacle of it all wash over you, and turn off your brain. All of the biggest action sequences in the series have had some element of that—think that 360-degree shot in “The Watchers on the Wall” in Season 4, or the waterfall of wights in last year’s “Hardhome.” Since the budget for effects had expanded in these last few seasons, showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss have been on a mission to top what can be accomplished in a TV fantasy series, and set a benchmark for others to reach for in the years to come. To that end, “Battle of the Bastards” was a rousing success.
Sansa: “You are going to die tomorrow, Lord Bolton. Sleep well.”
As part of the build up to the all-important penultimate installment of the season, director Miguel Sapochnik spoke of the role of luck in war, and that in filming the Battle of the Bastards he tried to show how it was a key factor. And in one sense, that was the through-line that played out on the battlefield last night. Consider what happened to Jon Snow after he was knocked off his horse and found himself on his feet in the mud in the midst of a cavalry charge. At any moment, he could have been run over. An arrow could have fallen a few feet to the left or right and pierced his armor. A soldier could have attacked his blind spot before he had a chance to turn. Another body could have landed on him and crushed him. It has been established that Jon is a hell of a swordsman, but just because Harington was damn near balletic on the field wasn’t enough. He also had to be lucky.
But what struck me, along with the arrows that rained down and yet never seemed to hit our hero, was how some characters made their own luck tonight. Not Jon Snow, for the record. In fact, one could say that Jon Snow did everything wrong. Sansa told him that Rickon was as good as dead, to let their brother go, to keep a cool head, to not fall into Ramsay’s traps. And Jon, honorable fool that he was raised to be, lost his head and ignored all of Sansa’s advice. His men, too, ignored all their own best words. Tormund might not have understood what Davos was talking about when he mentioned hanging back and being patient. But Davos’ advocating for restraint didn’t do a damn bit of good either, since he got antsy and rushed the rear guard, leading to some terrifying visual moments, as Ramsay sprung the back half of his trap with the “double envelopment pincer move,” squeezing the rebel forces between a wall of corpses and a wall of shields.
Ramsay: “Do you like games, Little Man?”
It was also notable that Ramsay never picked up a sword. This remained true to the end, even when his back was against the walls of Winterfell, and he was cockily attempting to agree to the hand-to-hand combat he refused the day before. Ramsay clearly does not have the sword training that Jon does. He is not a ballerina of death, whirling and slicing and murdering in the mud. But he’s a man who has always made his own luck. His mind games are how he forces his enemies to make mistakes. And it almost worked. Until the Knights of the Vale showed up, Ramsay was winning. He was inside their heads, from the moment he released Rickon. (Art Parkinson may have not spoken a word since Season 3, but his acting skills are still strong enough that Rickon’s death scene was a heart-wrencher.) And even once he’s lost, and the great equalizer that is Wun Wun* disabuses him of any notion of holing up for a siege in Winterfell, he seems to think he’ll always find a way to pull one over on the forces of good, because (to quote the great Rick Moranis in Spaceballs) “Good is dumb.”
(*RIP Wun Wun, our last CGI giant. Sleep well and dream of large women.)
But while Jon failed to make the luck he needed, Sansa made enough for both of them. Everyone will say that tonight, in their hour of need, Littlefinger and the Knights of the Vale rode in over the ridge, like Gandalf and the riders of Rohan at the Battle of Helm’s Deep. But as the Vale soldiers charged down the hill, smashing the shield wall from behind, and freeing Jon Snow’s trapped forces in their moment of need, the camera panned past Littlefinger to Sansa. She was the true leader of that army. She had brought the luck they needed. Littlefinger did not save Sansa and Jon. Sansa saved Jon and their home. And in doing so, she earned the right to be the one to kill Ramsay. Ramsay may have thought Jon stopped punching him because good is dumb. In reality, Jon stopped because he saw the look on Sansa’s face, and knew that this one was hers.
Sansa: “No one can protect me. No one can protect anyone.”
This theme of “making one’s own luck” was echoed in the other battle we saw tonight, the one In Meereen that the show kept under wraps until the hour began. And once again, it was hard to miss that it was the women who had the trump cards up their sleeves, and the men who posed and postured and assumed they were going to win. To be fair, it was Tyrion’s idea to get the Masters to stop bombing them long enough to pull out their ace cards (once he stopped trying to shoehorn in an entire season’s worth of plot exposition to explain to Dany how things got to this point.) He fooled the preening Masters with vague wording about “terms of surrender” and got them to a meeting. But from Drogon’s entrance onward, we were seeing the results of Dany’s choices, and the luck she had made for herself over the course of the season.
Speaking of choices made over the course of the season, Yara’s choice to beat her uncle to the punch and proposition Dany herself paid off beautifully. In “Battle of the Bastards,” the Ironborn storyline paid off in a way that the Dornish one never did when Yara and Dany locked eyes on each other and were unable to keep from smiling.
Dany: “Our fathers were evil men, all of us here. They left the world worse than they found it. We’re not going to do that. We’re going to leave the world better than we found it.”
Like the scenes between Brienne and Tormund, this was a moment of chemistry that the books will never see. The crackle between Dany and Yara, a pair of women who had made their own luck to get to this moment, is the kind of thing that spawns a million fanfics. No, a woman has never ruled the Iron Islands…no more than one has ever ruled the Seven Kingdoms. But between the two of them and their refusal to accept that “these are the facts of the ground” for an answer, they just might be able to make all the luck they will need when it comes to taking back Westeros.